Thank you to Michele Matthew, OTR/L for sharing her experiences and collaborating on this post.

As a school based occupational therapist, self-regulation is one of the skills I am most often working on. Helping students attend to the classroom teacher, remain seated for circle time activities, and manage their emotional state are all frequent parts of my day. One tool that I frequently use to address these needs is the Zones of Regulation program. Children learn to identify body feelings and relate them to a colored zone. Then they learn to use “tools”, to modify how they are feeling, so that they can move out of a “zone” that isn’t working. For example, a child might learn to use deep breaths when feeling “yellow”, or very silly or excited, to modify his or her zone in order to sit quietly and listen. The Zones curriculum contains many simple and fun activities to help kids learn the vocabulary of emotions and body feelings, the zone an emotion or body feeling is associated with, and the tools that can be used for changing the zone or state of regulation. I am often able to use the concepts in the curriculum, combined with my own creativity, to make learning tools that are especially personalized to my student’s needs, interests, and abilities.

Personalizing to my Student

One of my kindergarten students who is bothered by loud noises and close proximity of peers was engaging in frequent disruptive behaviors because he was experiencing so much stress and discomfort in the classroom. To help him, I first shared the Zones curriculum materials with his teachers and support staff, including the color coded chart. I also taught the student and teacher the concepts of slow body and fast body and how these concepts relate to the emotions and color coding. For this little boy we use animals to support his understanding of the speed/intensity of his body/emotions. We use a slow turtle for the blue zone, a busy worker bee for the green zone, and a fast cheetah for the yellow zone to help him conceptualize how his body is feeling more clearly. Pictures are important supports because he is not yet able to read and may not always be attentive to verbal communication.
A Deeper Understanding
To reinforce the emotions of the colored zones, and how they relate to the different body speeds, we play games like red light/green light or Simon Says. We also look up pictures or videos of preferred characters who are experiencing different body speeds and emotions to help make the concepts more meaningful and interesting. Teachers model self-awareness by identifying their own zone throughout the course of the day, why they are feeling that way, and what “tool” they can use to feel better. This modeling further helps the child learn about their own state of regulation.

Using “Tools” to Manage the Classroom Stressors

I work with my student and the teacher to determine what “tools” might be helpful when he is feeling stressed or wiggly (in the Yellow Zone). We provide calming activities throughout the day to help him prepare for, and take a break from, challenging activities such as circle time, or standing in line. This child calls these tools his “exercises”, and loves to choose from giving himself squeezes, taking a break in quiet corner with a book, tossing heavy bean bags into a bucket or making sure he gets a lot of swinging and climbing during recess. The teacher and OT collaborate on a regular basis to make sure the tools are effective and fitting with the child’s needs and the classroom structure and culture.

Overall, I find the Zones of Regulation to be a helpful and flexible tool to help children of all ages and abilities manage their emotions and sensory challenges so they can participate more fully in the classroom and in life.

Stay tuned for a future post when we will talk about implementing the Zones at for the classroom as a whole rather than just a single student.

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